N. Ireland Politics

Assembly election: Gareth Gordon on Sinn Fein and SDLP

In the tricolour-draped streets of Ballymurphy in west Belfast, you can find support for Sinn Fein and disdain for the SDLP in equal measure.

"SDLP? Who are the SDLP around here? There is no SDLP. They're not on the ground," says a man who claims he wouldn't even give the party a transfer.

"What about the SDLP? Please, don't make me sick. No way," says a woman stopped on the footpath.

It's true that both are making their feelings known within earshot of Pat Sheehan, the man co-opted to the assembly to replace Gerry Adams.

But the hostility seems genuine, perhaps reflective of the fact that in this constituency Sinn Fein's dominance is almost complete.

Borrowed votes

Less than two decades ago Joe Hendron beat Gerry Adams to take the Westminster seat, admittedly with the help of many borrowed votes from unionists.

At the last assembly election Sinn Fein took five seats, the only party to achieve that distinction in any of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies.

The SDLP was left with only one seat and that is held by Alex Attwood, whose performance as social development minister has given him a significantly raised profile.

At a door in Coolnasilla he meets a woman who congratulates him on the job he's doing as minister and tells him his former party leader John Hume is "a god".

In the days when Mr Hume led the SDLP, they were still ahead of Sinn Fein, but not any more.

At the last assembly election four years ago, the SDLP took just 16 seats with 15.2% of the vote compared to Sinn Fein's 28 from 26.2%.


But the gap was not so quite so big in the last Westminster election where the SDLP held onto its three seats, although in South Belfast it was thanks to a split unionist vote, while in South Down there's no doubt many unionists followed the example of their West Belfast brethren 19 years ago and voted for the nationalist party.

Nothing else can explain the fact that while in the 2010 Westminster election SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie was 8,412 votes ahead of Caitriona Ruane, in the proportional representation-voted assembly election three years earlier the difference between the parties was a mere 328.

The SDLP's other Westminster seat is Foyle, probably the only nationalist seat other than South Down where Sinn Fein has failed to failed to eclipse its rivals.

Sinn Fein sensed its opportunity at the 2005 general election when John Hume stood aside for his successor as party leader, Mark Durkan.

Mr Durkan won decisively, probably with the support of unionists, although that wasn't decisive.

This time Mr Durkan is not standing for the assembly (although his nephew Mark H Durkan is on the ticket) and once again Sinn Fein are talking up their chances of taking that elusive third seat and finally knocking the SDLP off their perch.

But once again, even without Mark Durkan, they are not favourites.

'Difficult task'

Michael McMonagle, a journalist with the Derry Journal, says: "While in the rest of the north Sinn Fein have been expanding and eating into SDLP territory, it hasn't been the case in Derry over recent elections."

"They've increased their votes but they haven't taken the big scalps and this time out they will be looking to do that. But they're trying to eat into a strong, long-held SDLP territory and it could be a difficult task."

Mitchel McLaughlin, who failed to beat Mr Durkan in 2005, admits the situation faced by Sinn Fein in Derry is "challenging" and puts it down to "a strong tradition of constitutional nationalism" in Foyle.

After his defeat in 2005, Mr McLaughlin moved to South Antrim where his presence has helped move Sinn Fein safely ahead of the SDLP.

"I think the message throughout the last decade has been of Sinn Fein drawing ahead and then consolidating our strength," he says.

"I do think the focus, for example, in the unionist community on Sinn Fein continuing to develop its electoral strength probably reflects realistically what is happening."

As well as Foyle, Sinn Fein is eyeing possible gains in Fermanagh/South Tyrone; Upper Bann; Mid Ulster; and East Antrim.

But the SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is defiant in the face of such claims.

"You just look at last year's Westminster election," she says.

"All kinds of predictions were made - the SDLP retained its three seats in Westminster.

"We retained them with increased majorities and I think we did well in that respect. And it is our intention to build on our success of that in this year's election."

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